• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

All Is True: A tender and melancholy imagining of Shakespeare's final years

Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench shine in a charming story about Shakespeare’s life after showbiz.

Little is known of William Shakespeare’s life beyond bare biography and a few bureaucratic documents. The writer Ben Elton is the latest to fill in the gaps with his own speculations in All Is True, a tender, melancholy imagining of the Bard’s retirement years: a blend of the factual, the plausible and the forgivably false.

In 1613, the Globe burnt down and Will (as he’s quaintly called here, played by director Kenneth Branagh) never wrote again, retreating from the London high life to the Stratford manor where his wife, Anne Hathaway (an extraordinary-as-usual Judi Dench), and daughters live. They’ve barely seen their patriarch in decades, and scorn his delayed mourning for his only son, Hamnet, who died years earlier. When Hamnet perished, Anne pointedly says, “you wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor”.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Branagh’s performance is brilliant. But it’s his directing that has really matured: All Is True opens with a stirring image of Shakespeare silhouetted against the flames consuming his life’s work. There’s grime under the fingernails and an autumnal austerity that matches the stark loneliness of Will’s soul as he adjusts to a more parochial way of being.

The pained, throbbing heart of the film is an enchanting fireside chat between Will and his old patron, the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen). It’s long been speculated that the Earl was the “fair youth” of Shakespeare’s famous Sonnets, an object of platonic, if not sexual, adoration – a contrast to Anne’s “dark lady”. In warm, generous light, these esteemed veterans of the Shakespearean stage sonorously recite Sonnet 29 to each other: From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate; For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings … It’s an extraordinary centrepiece scene rich in longing and nostalgia.

In a sense, nothing else could match that. The film’s final act meanders into the byways of marriage and inheritance better suited to a Jane Austen soap. And Elton’s writing sometimes slips into the kind of cliché at which Shakespeare himself would have tutted. He really does say at one point, in a cheap wink to the audience, “I don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

Then again, the film captures an important and poignant truth. As one character says, Shakespeare had a “small life”. Two plays a year, a theatre company to run, few intrigues or scandals. So little was left behind that even his grand imagination couldn’t dream of a fame that would survive four centuries. All Is True is a charming salute to that legacy and the endurance of his art.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★

Video: Sony Pictures Classics

This article was first published in the May 18, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.